still alive… but barely
There is no question but that we have ‘dumbed down’ TV news. But has TV news ‘dumbed down’ society, or is TV news simply chasing a dumber public?
For many years, I taught at New York University, and over those years I was increasingly astonished at how ill-educated my NYU students were. Not that they were stupid; just incredibly uneducated. Many could not differentiate between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. Most placed the American Civil War at anywhere from 1810 to 1920; the population of the US at anywhere from 2 million to a billion; the distance from NY to LA at anywhere from 800 miles to 25,000. And there was worse. The more shocking fact was, that when confronted with their appalling lack of basic knowledge, they simply did not care. “I can look it up if I want to know” was their most popular answer. And indeed, in a world of Google, this proves to be true.
In that same period, we have all watched TV news deteriorate at the same rate. Issues such as the Middle East or the economy are now simply far too complex to explain in depth, and so we are reduced to a simplistic ‘good guy, bad guy’ analysis which more often than not misses the point entirely. It leaves us with what Neil Postman used to call ‘the illusion of knowledge’, which can be far more dangerous than no knowledge at all. (ie, Saddam is Hitler… sort of). Why did this happen? Did TV news debase the intelligence of the Average American, or did TV news simply follow their audience into the abyss?
This question has been raised of late in an online discussion amongst members of my class at the J-School at Columbia. And here is an interesting theory that has arisen from this: When I was a child, most of my public school teachers were excellent. They were excellent because they had come of age in an era when women had two career choices: teacher or nurse. And because the options open to ‘career women’ were so limited, schools could get away with paying their female teachers next to nothing. In the 1970s and 80s, options for women (thankfully) opened. I am old enough to remember when a woman going to Harvard Law School still merited an article in our local newspaper.
Now, bright and aggressive women headed off to become lawyers, doctors and CEOs. At that point, schools should have vastly escalated their salaries. If we wanted to keep the best and the brightest teaching our children, it would have meant offering salaries commensurate with law firms (ie, $150K a year). And why not? But schools did not. Instead, they kept their salaries as low as they had always been. And so, with a few very dedicated individuals who were willing to forego incomes to fulfill their teaching ambition, the quality of teachers collapsed. As did, I think, the general quality of education.
Today’s students (based on my own anecdotal decade at NYU) have not been educated; and for the most part, don’t even seem to know what an education is. This is now the audience for TV news – limited attention span, limited background, limited education. TV news has always chased ratings, and so is it any surprise that in an effort to garner eyeballs on the screen, news has gravitated to Britney Spears? We will pay a price for this.
As the Roman Empire collapsed in upon itself (some say for lead in the drinking water), future historians may look to this debasement of education as the root cause of the end of the American Empire.
TV News is a kind of canary in the coal mine. It tells us what is happening in our culture. And TV news, like our culture, is not looking well.